Book Summaries History

Chapter 13: The Secret of Success (Sapiens)

Could history have been different or was it destined to be this way? Perhaps in some ways, a global society was inevitable, when seen from a bird’s eye view across thousands of years, but it is not clear that this global society was inevitable. That is, a world that consists of 2 billion Christians, 1.2 billion Muslims, and only 150,000 Zoroastrians. If we went back in time, and set the process going again, would the rise of monotheism at the expense of dualism be an inevitability?

Such an experiment is not possible, but what we do know, is that the more you understand a historical era, the more possibilities you become aware of – the more the unpredictable the course of history becomes. Some scholars believe in deterministic events, but most historians are skeptical. Think of the average Roman, they knew their times better than anyone, and yet were the most clueless. They couldn’t have had the slightest idea which direction the future would take.

Today is no different. Are we done with economic crises or is the biggest one yet to hit? And if so, when? Will China keep growing at the same rate? Will the US lose its dominance? None of these questions have clear answers, yet decades from now, some people will think that the answers were obvious.

There are two types of chaotic systems. The first is like the weather – it does not react to predictions about it. It is possible to better forecast the weather by building better computer systems. The second type of chaotic system does react to predictions. The stock market is an example. If a highly trustworthy predictor said that prices of a stock would rise tomorrow, more people would buy the stock today, which would make its price tomorrow unpredictable.

Politics belongs to the second category. There’s no way to predict revolutions, for example. So why should we study history? Unlike other subjects, we don’t study history to predict the future, we do so to broaden our horizons – to have a deeper understanding of reality. By learning about the past, we understand the world could have easily been different today, and that nothing is natural or inevitable.

Many scholars see cultures as a kind of mental infection, with humans as its unaware hosts. Viruses live inside the body of their hosts and they multiply and spread from one person to the next – weakening each new victim, and sometimes killing them. In the same way, cultural ideas live in our minds. They, like viruses, don’t care about our well-being, their survival only depends on us living long enough to pass them along.

According to this approach, cultures are not conspiracies concocted by some people in order to take advantage of others (as Marxists tend to think). Rather, cultures are mental parasites that emerge accidentally, and thereafter take advantage of all people infected by them.

This is sometimes called memetics. Organic evolution is based on the replication of genes, and cultural evolution is based on the replication of cultural information units called ‘memes.’ The successful cultures that ones that excel at reproducing memes – irrespective of the costs and benefits to people.

Game theory is similar. In multi-player systems, the behavior patterns that harm all players manage to spread. Arms races is an example.

Many arms races bankrupt all those who take part in them, without really changing the military balance of power. When Pakistan buys advanced aeroplanes, India responds in kind. When India develops nuclear bombs, Pakistan follows suit. When Pakistan enlarges its navy, India counters. At the end of the process, the balance of power may remain much as it was, but meanwhile billions of dollars that could have been invested in education or health are spent on weapons.

Whatever you call it, the point is the same, human beings are unwitting hosts to unaware genes and memes that spread under favorable conditions and we are too stupid to know what’s good for us individually.

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"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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